THE BLOG
02/26/2016 05:22 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2017

Hollywood and White Victimology

Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images

The controversy over the whiteness of this year's Oscar nominees reveals an important lesson about the psychology of many mainstream white people -- they hunger to see themselves as racial victims.

The Academy Awards' announcement of a slate of all-white nominees for the second year in a row revived the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created by editor April Reign, and sparked a potential boycott. Journalists responded by asking various white actors their opinion of the controversy.

Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling claimed that the potential Oscar boycott is "racist to whites" and that "these days everyone is more or less accepted."

Julie Delpy, a former Oscar nominee, asserted there's "nothing worse than being a woman in this business" and that "women can't talk. I sometimes wish I were African American because people don't bash them afterward." (Delpy was effectively bashing women like Jada Pinkett Smith, who called for the boycott, even as Delpy claimed that black women's race immunizes them from criticism.)

This phenomenon is not limited to the Academy Awards. Recall last year when Viola Davis, a graduate of Juilliard and double Oscar nominee, became the first black woman to win the Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama after 60 years of exclusion. During Davis's acceptance speech, she quoted Harriett Tubman's statement about race creating a line that held her back from the opportunities experienced by white women.

"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity," Davis declared.

Nancy Lee Grahn, a veteran daytime soap opera actress who is white, took to Twitter enraged: "I'm a fucking actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve. Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled," she wrote in a tweet that she later deleted.

Grahn saw Davis's victory and acknowledgment of racial exclusion as an attack on "all women," although she really meant all white women.

Fortunately, several other white actors, including George Clooney and Emma Thompson, have criticized Hollywood for racial exclusion. But something more is going on here than the offhand comments of a few actors.

The distress of actors like Rampling and Delpy is evidence of a broader shift in which some white people increasingly see themselves as the real victims of racial injustice. For these white people, any step toward equality by a person of color is treated as a swipe at whites. For example, if Davis wins, white women lose. In their minds, racial equality or inclusion translates into anti-white racism.

A study by Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers, both psychology professors, identified "an emerging belief in anti-White prejudice." Their study asked a group of white and black people to rank the prevalence of racism toward blacks and racism toward whites for each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. Only whites saw decreases in anti-black racism as correlated with an increase in anti-white racism.

By the 2000s, whites ranked anti-white discrimination a bigger problem than anti-black racism. While white conservatives have long accused blacks of being afflicted by a "victim mentality," it seems that many whites are unconsciously ignoring and distorting facts in order to feel like a victim.

This sense of vulnerability to perceived anti-white racism is hard to square with reality. As Sommers and Norton noted, "by nearly any metric -- from employment to police treatment, loan rates to education, statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black than White Americans."

In Hollywood, two straight years of complete exclusion of people of color in the acting categories would seem to make an undeniable case that the system is unfair to people of color, not whites. While many pundits have criticized the Academy for overlooking black men like Idris Elba and Ryan Coogler, let's not forget that actresses of color and Latino and Asian actors were not even contenders this season. Hence, The Hollywood Reporter's cover story on Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress contenders (including Rampling) was a wall of whiteness.

Still, white actors like Rampling feel driven to assert that they are the real victims. Most distressingly, white women, who might be seen as natural allies of people of color, have invoked the very real gender discrimination that they experience to attempt to silence women of color like Davis.

This moment shines a spotlight on the phenomenon of white victimology, a psychology demanding exploration, so that we might gain insight into the misguided impulse to overshadow the exclusion experienced by people of color with competing and imagined narratives of injury.